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"H3O"

[written November 23, 2004]

"Getcher paws off me, old man!" the Texan yelled, clearly irritated, yet fearless. An older man with leathery skin and a surfer's pompadour had my friend in a chokehold from behind.

"You're barred from the beach, kook!" said the old man.

Two surfers were going at it, and their boards were floating some distance away from the scuffle. Nearby surfers gathered around, plaintively shouting things like, "Hey, come on guys..." Everyone's discomfort was uneasily palpable. The southerner's two friends were nearby. One tried to break the two apart, and the other sat back and watched, half in amusement, half in fear that his friend would do something stupid.

He wasn't concerned though, mainly because the scene was comedic. The old man, crazy and enraged, was trying to push the other man underwater. But the younger man was taller, and they were standing in only five feet of water. The older man's efforts to drown the other into submission looked more like a chimpanzee humping the shit out of a gorilla.

This was the formative experience in my memory of H3O. H3O consisted of three Arabic linguists at the Defense Language Institute. It sprung out of the three soldiers going to surf at Pleasure Point, south of Santa Cruz, every weekend.

The man being choked out was the Prodigy. Well, he acted more like a boy most of the time. But he was tall, and strong. He was unbeatable in basketball. No one outside of H3O understood why the other two liked the Prodigy. You've probably met someone similar to the Prodigy. The Prodigy earned his nickname through his pure talent at everything he did. He'd effortlessly and carelessly pluck every single football pass out of the air, would get decent Arabic grades while never studying, would always be a step ahead in finding the newest, best music, would win any contest he put his mind to. The Prodigy was the youngest in H3O, and his moodiness, cleverness, and utterly cruel insight would alienate most of his fellow soldiers because, despite all of his good traits, the Prodigy also didn't give a shit.

The other members of H3O could endure the Prodigy's personality, and indeed would welcome it. His comic genius struck a chord with their dark senses of humor.

The Monkey Pope was the oldest member. Having lived in a lot of places, and having obtained a liberal arts education, he was an intelligent, opinionated man. Self-deprecating in his humor and brutally honest in speaking his mind, he was the most popular and well-liked of the team. He always had new passions and was curious about trying different things like surfing, and, amusingly, the Atkins diet, before it was big.

The Monkey Pope had a fascination with monkeys. The seriousness with which they conducted their acts of absurdity and obscenity must have appealed to his sense of humor. Or his sensibility, perhaps.

Thus the juxtaposition of a monkey with a pope.

The last member, myself, was Professor Doublehump. Allegedly they came up with this name for me because I'd always have some dumb smartypants facts and research to talk about whenever H3O ran into new things. Also, I had a legendary appetite for food. Sometimes. I'd not eat for a couple days, then gorge on my plate and everyone else's the next day.

So this was H3O. It was like a modern version of Steinbeck's Mack and the boys from "Cannery Row". H3O was inseparable. People would ask us where the third was if all of us weren't together.

H3O added life to any party. H3O would show up at a friend's house at Fort Ord. Completely ignorant of everyone else there, H3O would break out a deck of cards and a wheel of poker chips. As this was before WPT, the WSOP, and all the hoopla surrounding no-limit had hit the mainstream, no one else knew how to play hold 'em until H3O taught them.

Simple get-togethers turned into poker tournaments a month later. Poker tournaments turned into after-school poker rooms until late at night. Cars full of sleepy soldiers slunk back from Seaside to the Presidio, along foggy Highway 1, which overlooked Monterey Bay but cowered beneath the majesty of the Army post on the hill.

As soon as H3O arrived, things would get hectic and dangerously exciting, and as soon as H3O left, things would die. It was a fun-delivery service.

For a while, we flirted with the idea of expanding H3O. Obviously we couldn't just go to H14O or H240723O, so we threw the term Surf Jihad around a bit, an homage to our Arabic training. Others would go to surf with us from time to time, but the frigid waters and tough waves didn't appeal to them long.

Those trips up to Santa Cruz have become associated in my mind with Doc Ricketts' trips north to the tidepools, hot California women in bikinis, Jane's Addiction (whose album hit it big that summer), and great friendship.

One of my fondest memories was when we drove up to Berkeley to see the White Stripes in concert. Opening for them was Ima Robot. No one else was interested in going -- both bands didn't hit it big until much later. But we were rockin'. The Prodigy lost his voice from screaming and singing too much. Monkey Pope was buzzing from Jack White and Meg. I was looking for something to eat.

One of the best things about H3O was that it made people uncomfortable. One time our class went on a picnic to a park downtown and H3O ended up splitting to get something to eat. This was sort of a no-no, since it was a pseudo-Army function. But everyone else was going away from the park to get things to eat. Lo and behold, who would get caught by the officer in our class for leaving the park? Our friends phoned us when he caught wind of our absence. We drove back to the park and everyone looked at us like they were ashamed of us. We were incredulous. The officer talked to our first sergeant, who handed us off to our platoon sergeant for punishment. Luckily our platoon sergeant liked us, and while we were doing push-ups in his office, he explained to us that the whole situation was poorly managed by the officer and that the officer's reputation wasn't that hot in the unit. We got off the hook, and the Prodigy said the equivalent of Matthew Broderick in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off", "I'm not going to get busted by THIS guy."

Another uncomfortable incident was when we went to a friend's house to hang out, eat some bake-it-yourself pizza, and recite gung-ho movies like Conan and Predator. The host was a big Dane with a hilarious sense of humor but a short temper. Everyone was buzzing a bit, when the Dane looked at the Prodigy and said curtly, "Stop playing with my pewter bowl." The Prodigy didn't even realize he had been playing with the bowl, made of soft metal and given to the Dane as a wedding gift, imported from Denmark. It was not the Prodigy's way to just say sorry and stop doing something. He kept playing with the bowl, infuriating the Dane. "It's just a bowl!" exclaimed the Prodigy, goading the Dane on. The Dane responded, "YOU DARE COME INTO MY HOUSE AND DO THAT?!" while slamming his elbow onto the table and pointing at the Prodigy. The Prodigy stepped up to the plate and ridiculed the Dane to the point that all of H3O got kicked out that night. The Prodigy and the Dane, both being too proud, would never make amends. Monkey Pope and I would have to go behind the Prodigy's back from that day on to go see our good friend, the Dane. Such were the dynamics of H3O.

One Saturday night, we were all pretty bored, probably playing some Virtua Tennis while eating Chipotle, when da Pope started getting worked up about the length of his hair. Army regulations are pretty strict in training, so if you don't want to get hassled by zealous sergeants, you do what Mr. Pope did, which was to borrow a set of clippers from another person. Well, next thing you know, H3O was in the bathroom helping Monkey Pope shave his head. Somewhere along the line, the idea, "Why don't we all shave our heads?" was thrown out there. Seemed like a great idea at the time. We took turns shaving off our gorgeous locks.

It really didn't occur to us how dumb an idea it was until the next day when we all showed up at class and people ridiculed us for looking alike, like three bald aliens. What was worse, since we always went around town together, we'd look stupid there too. Brothers in baldness.

It was a long time before we all got haircuts again. Hey, H3O moved as a unit, but we each had distinct personalities.

And we appreciated good humor. Like when we were about to go out to eat, and I was waiting outside the barracks for them to come pick me up, and this Cherokee comes hurtling down the street, screeching to a stop in front of me. The doors swung open, the Prodigy and the Pope jumping out, yelling, "MASTER! MASTER! THE MASTER OF PUPPETS IS PULLING HIS STRINGS!" while seizing me and throwing me in the truck, in front of a crowd of people. A clear homage to Old School, but lost, I think, on the bystanders.

Not that it was always rosy. Probably about halfway through the course, when everyone's nerves were getting a bit frayed, I decided to hit the Prodigy over the head with a TV remote while he was sleeping during a ten-minute class break. The Prodigy didn't find this as playful and entertaining as I did. He grabbed the first thing he could find, a pen, and tried to stab me with it. I, being a Chinaman, not only stopped the pen from hitting me, but also Shaolin-chopped it in half. As a young disciple, I hadn't learned the consequences of violence upon my chi, and the ink splattered all over my Army uniform. I was livid.

"You're gonna pay for new ones, you fucking god damn fuckstick fucker!"

"YOU BROUGHT THIS UPON YOURSELF!" the Prodigy responded. "You hit me over the head with a remote!"

"But you used a pen on me! Of all the things, you picked the one with ink in it!"

"I'M NOT PAYING. IT'S YOUR FAULT!"

He never paid. Afterwards, that event never failed to make it into moments when we traded facetious insults.

I'm pretty sure, looking back, that the other soldiers in our class considered us burnouts. But along came the day when we got our final Arabic test grades. Everyone lined up like cows to the brain basher to get their grades. I came in a little late, saw the mix of emotions, and checked mine after finding out the Pope and the Prodigy had passed. I checked, and I passed. I went out, told them, and I think we did a touchdown celebration of some sort. H3O had done it. This was clearly H3O's day. We partied so hard that I took Monkey Pope to pick up his car from the dealer. Man, wild days we lived. Like rock stars. FUCKING ROCK STARS.

Oh yeah, I guess I DID start drinking for the first time with all my classmates that night. Vodka mixed with poker. Good times. H3O was upstaged by some girl who jumped off the roof onto a couch. But that's cool.

Fast-forward to Goodfellow Air Force Base, in Texas. That's where we did our job training. Not even the strength of H3O's bonds were enough for the evil shadow of that place. Goodfellow tears people apart. The Prodigy got in a couple tiffs with some other friends of ours. Stubbornness prevailed. H3O was split a bit because of different class schedules. But we still got out to O'Brien's to hang out in the patio and drink. We tipped some canoes over at the lake.

One night, we were again bored. Idle hands and shit. Not literally, but we decided to go to the lake for some late night swimming. We brought along the Dane's wife, who must've been even more bored than us to be willing to go out with trouble incarnate. The Pope and the Prodigy really wanted to try out their new board shorts that night, which I think brought on the idea. By this point, they were competing for San Angelo metrosexuality champion, but the Prodigy would always win because 1) he was younger and 2) he didn't have a carpet on his back like the Prodigy did. Oh, and 3) you've never seen Beckham taunt his opponent with "B.Y.O. BOOYAH!" in darts, have you?

Anyway, having been drinking earlier, they really, really had to fucking piss by the time they got to the lake. Naturally, then, they broke ground by pissing themselves. I got some photos somewhere. People driving past would've seen flashes of light showing a camera pointing at peoples' crotches, and a wife who was half-embarrassed, half-laughing.

The water was cool, but it was quiet, and we wrapped up the night with some Whataburger.

Eventually the Prodigy and I graduated, and the Prodigy left while I had to stay for an extra month waiting for a class start date. We saw the Prodigy again in Dallas, at my house, but really H3O's been separated for a while now. I've seen Monkey Pope quite a few times since. We all still talk. And we'll probably get together on holidays and raise Hell.

It still isn't the same. There's no common people to antagonize. And there aren't any waves. But I think H3O's left a legacy behind it, and it was cool having the experience of having really close Army buddies.



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